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SHOOT FIRST & ASK QUESTIONS LATER: The San Jose Police and the Mentally Ill

by Peter Maiden (info [at] faultlines.org)
Two days before the San Jose Police killed her daughter, Bich Cau Thi Tran, a bird flew into Hoang Thi Nguyen’s Viet Nam home. The bird then expired. Ms. Nguyen, at her daughter’s funeral, told a reporter that it was an omen.
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Two days before the San Jose Police killed her daughter, Bich Cau Thi Tran, a bird flew into Hoang Thi Nguyen’s Viet Nam home. The bird then expired. Ms. Nguyen, at her daughter’s funeral, told a reporter that it was an omen.

Ms. Tran was a small woman. She was 4 foot 9 inches tall and weighed 98 pounds. She spoke limited English. On July 13, 2003, Officers Chad Mitchell and Tom Mun of the SJPD came to her home in response to a call that one of her two toddlers was seen alone. There had been some tension that day between Ms. Tran and her boyfriend, Dang Bui, which Mr. Bui related to the officers. He said, “She’s been acting crazy all day.” He could not have known one of the officers was going to flip out and shoot.

When Officer Mitchell entered the kitchen, Ms. Tran gestured with a ten-inch dao bao, an Asian vegetable peeler, and cried out something in Vietnamese. Officer Mitchell reportedly said nothing more than “Hey, hey!” before shooting Ms. Tran dead with a single 9mm hollow-point bullet that pierced her heart and aorta. Officer Mitchell later said the dao bao looked like a cleaver.

There were several attempts at spin control by the SJPD around the killing of Ms. Tran. Days later the SJPD showed the vegetable peeler to the press, somehow believing it would look to the public like a cleaver, which it did not. The police also asserted that they only have split seconds to decide whether or not to use a gun, a common and problematic law enforcement argument. And SJPD officers went on Vietnamese radio to try to calm the community down with public relations propaganda. The revelation that Ms. Tran was mentally ill worked in the interest of the SJPD.

The Santa Clara County Coroner reported that Ms. Tran had been prescribed Risperadol, an anti-psychotic medication, that she had a bottle in her possession, and that she did not have any in her system when she died.

The Grand Jury examines all officer-involved killings, usually in secret. In the Tran case, because of the level of public outcry, the Grand Jury was opened to the public. Much of Ms. Tran’s psychiatric history was presented in the hearing room. She had had several crises. Officer Mitchell, on the other hand, was allowed to wear his uniform and gun in the Grand Jury courtroom, as if the hearing were business as usual for your average cop. It is likely that bias towards the police and stigma against mental illness on the part of the Jurors played a large part in their decision to clear Officer Mitchell of any wrongdoing.

A civil case against Officer Mitchell goes to court in San Jose in November. L. A. Chung, a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, wrote in an email: “The Tran case has been kept alive, in particular, by the electrified response of the Vietnamese American community, which has been very vocal in its questioning of the shooting.” The civil case may be their victory.

The Tran Case was the spark that led to the creation of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability (CJA).This group seeks justice in the Tran case, and to advocate for changes in police practices. It looks into all police homicides in San Jose, most recently the death of Samuel Martinez, who was tasered and shot while unarmed. Activists come to the CJA from a variety of backgrounds, and many have taken up the cause of the mentally ill. Richard Konda facilitates the CJA. He is an with the Asian Law Alliance, a public interest law firm in a storefront in San Jose’s Japantown. “A lot of people have said that [the Tran] case is really one that changed their view of the police, of the government, of authority,” Mr. Konda told me in his office. “Following the incident I went to a number of different meetings where members of the Vietnamese community said they were really reluctant to call the police now. They felt afraid of police, when they saw police, and they really didn’t trust the police.”

After Ms. Tran was killed, the SJPD turned to Tasers as a method of avoiding killings. Most patrol officers in San Jose now have them. The CJA supported the use of Tasers for a short while when they were considered non-lethal, until it became clear how dangerous they really are. Now the CJA is leading the struggle against them. Over one hundred people have died from Taser shocks nationwide since their introduction, mostly from heart failure. Officers often shock people multiple times, sometimes even shocking them when they are in restraints. There are many such horror stories. Tasers have been called torture devices by many human rights advocates.

Tasers are an issue that is paramount to those concerned with the safety of the mentally ill. In a study released by the SJPD, it was shown that between May 1, 2004 and October 31, 2004, “a combined total of 79% of the Taser deployments involved two types of suspects: suspects under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol (64 incidents), and mentally ill suspects (23 incidents), and in some of these cases individuals were both mentally ill and under the influence."

Jose Rangel is a mental health client and a CJA activist. Spanish TV interviewed him as a spokesperson at a CJA press conference on Tasers in April. In a wheelchair after losing a foot to diabetes, he lives in a board and care home. He spoke to me from a pay phone at the home. Mr. Rangel considers himself a Chicano and has been political for many years. He talked about one of his issues; the ability police have, without an arrest, to force a person into a locked psychiatric facility for a period of time. Psychiatric detention, known as a 51-50, “gives legitimacy to authority to put people in the hospital. If a person doesn’t behave or follow the rules he might be subject to that kind of thing. It’s a political threat over everybody. It’s kind of tough to go against a police officer or a psychologist or a social worker that might want to put you away. The whole psychiatric system is just control. It’s a police state, I think.”

A spokesperson for Valley Medical Center, Joy Alexiou, said the hospital receives around 400 people a month who are being placed on a 51-50 hold—an astounding 4,800 a year. The criteria for the holds are that the individual be dangerous to themselves or others, something that can be broadly interpreted.

I asked Mr. Rangel what he would tell police who are trying to do the right thing when dealing with a person with mental health issues. “To the cop what I would suggest,” he said, “is that he or she identify if the case is mental, and if it is call in somebody who will de-escalate rather than escalate. And I think the person who is mentally ill will respond because he will sense certain respect, a certain approach towards human interaction [that is beyond] just a police incident.” Officer Mitchell was ready to kill at the drop of a hat, as if he were a gunslinger in the Wild West. Hopefully the community will someday be able to assert control over the police, until they no longer, in the words of the Tran family attorney, “shoot first and ask questions later.”
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